6/9/09 Update: I gather this topic is 'back in the news,' at least in the blogosphere, and several blogs have linked to the item, below. I have posted some current thoughts on the general issue of pseudonymity/anonymity in cyberspace here.
=========original posting follows=======================
Yesterday, the lone anonymous poster at the quasi-libertarian Volokh Conspiracy, who uses the pseudonym "Juan Non-Volokh," posted a comment on my lengthy entry about the constitutional case for impeachment. Well, actually, he bypassed all the real arguments, and picked up on something at the very end. Mr. Non-Volokh's original posting, titled "Nazi Germany = McCarthy Era = America Today?", reads as follows:
At the end of a long post on whether President Bush can be impeached...Brain Leiter offers this "somewhat tangential comment":
in every society of which I'm aware the vast majority of the preeminent academic figures were, in general, cowards when it came to their own regimes, and apologists for what later generations would see clearly as inhumanity and illegality. This was clear in Germany in the 1930s, as it was in America in the 1950s. There is no reason to think the United States today is any different. (Emphases in original).
While this statement might not equate Nazi Germany with the current regime, it certainly suggests an equivalence between those who failed to oppose Nazism, those who failed to oppose McCarthyism, and those who do not oppose the Bush Administration. Haven't we had enough of these sorts of comparisons?
Might not??? Jason Walta alerted me to this bizarre misreading in an e-mail, and remarked, "I thought it was quite funny that Juan Non-Volokh, a supposed legal academic who blogs anonymously at the Volokh Conspiracy, criticized your plain-as-day observation that academic figures are often cowards when it comes to their own regimes." There was obviously no equation of Nazi Germany with the United States, but rather the observation that "preeminent academic figures" in all societies (even the most heinous, like Nazi Germany) tend, in general, to be apologists for the status quo. Mr. Non-Volokh, alas, is not a very able reader, and, like many on the right, is strangely agitated by comparisons bewteen Bush and fascist leaders. You would think if the comparisons had so little merit, conservatives would just laugh them off, instead of jumping up and down about imagined comparisons in contexts where they aren't even suggested. (To be sure, I think the comparison is worth exploring, and since I'm a nice guy, I even supplied a link in the Update to my original post to an actual discussion of the comparison with which Mr. Non-Volokh is obsessed.)
Having been caught "red-handed," as it were, in his bad reading, Mr. Non-Volokh then added an "Update" to his original post as follows:
In an update, Leiter links to an earlier post cataloging alleged similarities and differences between 1930s Germany and America today.
Actually, the main point of the Update--unmentioned of course by Mr. Non-Volokh--is that Mr. Non-Volokh can't read. Putting that aside, Mr. Non-Volokh is now reduced to quoting the pathetically dumb Clayton Cramer (how dumb? almost anything on his blog will do, but start here). Cramer, quoted by Non-Volokh, says:
It is certainly true that academics overwhelmingly defended the Nazi ideology, in some cases, producing what later came to be embarrassing nonsense about "racial science" and "Jewish physics." Shirer's _Rise and Fall of the Third Reich_ examines this, and points out that even before the Nazis came to power, teachers and professors were largely in sympathy with the Nazis' goals, even if they found their style offensive. It is no surprise that teachers and college students (taking advantage of the newly lowered voting age of 18) voted heavily for the Nazis.
I would agree that nothing has really changed; academics are overwhelmingly on the side of totalitarian thugs throughout the world--but not on the side of George Bush (emphasis added).
What is Mr. Cramer thinking of? All those English professors who champion the murderous tyrant in Uzbekistan? Or all the scholars who, at the drop of a hat, will rally to the defense of the rulers of Saudi Arabia? Poor Mr. Cramer is stuck in some 1930s time warp, when it was still important to denounce Stalinists.
Of course, Mr. Non-Volokh lets Mr. Cramer's nonsense pass in silence, adding only the following:
Maybe things are different at the University of Texas (though I doubt it), but I find the idea that American academics at large are too afraid to criticize the Bush Administration to be quite laughable.
Yes, that is laughable, so it's a good thing I didn't say that (though, once again, one would have to be able to read to know this). Here's what I did say:
the vast majority of the preeminent academic figures were, in general, cowards when it came to their own regimes, and apologists for what later generations would see clearly as inhumanity and illegality
This remark comes on the heels of a lengthy, critical analysis of really bad arguments against impeaching Bush by three eminent scholars. (That is the analysis Mr. Non-Volokh ignored the first time around.) Here's a simple inference a more skilled, or less hostile, reader would have drawn: these folks may be examples! Examples of what exactly? Let's make this easy, for the benefit of simple souls. They might be examples of:
1. Preeminent academics, who
2. Display cowardice when it comes to their own regime, and who
3. Offer apologetics for what others do and will see as "inhumanity and illegality."
And now to flesh this out:
1. We're not talking about academics in general, we are talking about those who are able to attain a certain degree of acclaim and professional success; and even with respect to these preeminent scholars, we are talking about the general tendency they exhibit (Noam Chomsky is an exception, for example; so, too, in somewhat different ways, Michael Dummett; there are, of course, many others).
2. We did not accuse these preeminent scholars of being enthusiasts or ardent supporters of their regimes (no one said they were pro-Bush, for example--really, go read the original), we accused them of a certain kind of cowardice, for example, of a fundamental unwillingness to pursue certain lines of critique (I realize that this would be critique of a kind unthinkable by those on the far right like Mr. Non-Volokh), of pulling back from certain kinds of challenges to the status quo, of being keen to distinguish themselves from "the lunatic left" (to quote one of the aforementioned examples).
3. In particular, they tend to offer apologetics for "inhumanity" and "illegality": for example, the criminal and immoral invasion of Iraq. (Which preeminent academics have publically and repeatedly denounced this "inhumane" and "illegal" war, and in those terms, without qualifications? Which preeminent academics have publically and repeatedly called for international war crimes trials for those who orchestrated these events? The list is not long.)
See, that wasn't so hard after all. Even Mr. Non-Volokh, I bet, can get the point straight this time. Leading academics tend to be partisans of the existing order, even if they have their quibbles with the party in power at any given moment. (This reminds me of the myth of left-wing Harvard, though I doubt Mr. Non-Volokh will be able to follow yet another long posting. Hint: to understand what I mean, imagine that Chomsky represents the left, Al Gore and John Kerry the conservative middle, and Bush & co. the far right.)
Apparently smarting, however, from the allegation of cowardice directed at him by my correspondent Mr. Walta, Mr. Non-Volokh adds one final remark:
Leiter's claim that academics "are often cowards when it comes to their own regimes" may well apply to us untenured types, however. Academics without tenure rarely criticize their tenured colleagues -- at least not with the harsh language commonly found in Leiter's own posts about those with who[m] he disagrees.
I am grateful to Mr. Non-Volokh for recycling this favorite canard of delicate right-wingers, namely, that I use "harsh language...about those with who[m] [I] disagree." Disagreement is a necessary, but not a sufficient occasion for harsh language: the disagreement also has to be stupid or absurd or, in short, intellectually and morally dishonest, and so not worth its time. (This entire dispute is an example, which is why the disagreement is concluding momentarily!) Just a few days ago, I posted an example (see the concluding paragraphs) of a substantive intellectual disagreement (should we think of the concept of law as a kind-concept?), in which everyone disagreed with me and I had concluded they were right, and I was wrong. No harsh language to be found. Why not? Because, unlike a disagreement with a juvenile anonymous misreader like Mr. Non-Volokh, disagreements with actual scholars about substantive topics do not warrant harsh language, and oftentimes, the other side turns out to be right.
Mr. Non-Volokh concludes:
If that is cowardice in Leiter's book, so be it. I've accepted such charges before.
Mr. Non-Volokh gives as the reason for anonymity concerns about getting tenure. I confess I wonder about the prudence of that rationale: I would think a tenure process deprived of the information that the candidate had been writing about legal matters for years on a very public website would be invalidated once that information became known. But I am not, obviously, much interested in what counts as professional prudence for Mr. Non-Volokh.
There are occasions, to be sure, where anonymity is warranted, but, in general, I am of the view that people should own their words--among other things, they tend to behave better when they must own their words (and when they don't behave well, they also get to own the consequences, which is only just). The idea that Juan Non-Volokh should get a free pass to be a venal misreader of what others write, as well as a serial spewer of insults, strikes me as deeply unjust. He can insult and misread all he wants, but he ought to own his words, so that he can enjoy their consequences as well.
So who is Juan Non-Volokh? I intend to find out and to post that information here in due course. I welcome your help...and I promise to keep my sources secret!
Until he comes out of hiding, however, I'm done commenting on Mr. Non-Volokh's displays.
UPDATE: Thanks to the various readers who have written since yesterday with words of encouragement and tips. I appreciate all the correspondence, and particularly got a kick out of this, from a student at Washington University, St. Louis:
I just started reading your weblog a couple months ago, and while I don't
agree with everything you say, I find it very refreshing to have such
unapologetic and powerful critiques from an elite law school
professor/philosopher. I was just reading over the exchange between yourself and Juan Non-Volokh, and I wish you the best of luck in uncovering and exposing his identity. I think it's a complete joke that he is able to
criticize you anonymously, while comparing himself to "Publius" in the
process. I look forward to finding out who he is.
"Publius" indeed! Mr. Non-Volokh, meanwhile, professes to be in the dark as to what could be deemed "insulting." Putting aside the misreadings designed to make the target look ridiculous, how about this line from Mr. Non-Volokh's second posting: "I doubt Leiter knows anything about the history of fascism. Intellectually, the progressive left has a lot more in common with it than the 'libertarian right' (the real liberals)." Was this claim about my ignorance, and allying me with fascism, intended as a compliment?
On the other hand, another reader writes:
I was pleased, as always, to read your rhetorical beat-down of a cowardly right-winger like "Professor" Non-Volokh. His comments were just as craven as his anonymity -- allowing quotes from other to do the hatchet work and then feigning surprise when it's pointed out that he's attacked you.Nonetheless, I think that you should reconsider your decision to "out" him. Most importantly, I suspect that, rather than making him accountable for his stupidity, his outing would make him the unassailable "victim" in this whole exchange (the Right, as you know, is immeasurably fond of claiming victim status these days). Also, while I think it is somewhere in the ballpark of scholarly fraud to write publicly in your area of supposed expertise without informing your tenure committee of those writings, if Prof. N-V is truly as willfully obtuse in his real life as he is in his online persona, his academic career is not likely to amount to much in any event.
[T]here are good reasons for people to blog and comment pseudonymously. I, for example, would almost surely lose my job if I blogged under my real name. Academics who aren't tenured have legitimate concerns about whether blogging *at all*, quite apart from what they blog about, will be held against them. I'd urge you to consider that, as a tenured academic, you have a privileged position with regard to voicing your thoughts under your own name.
Finally, there's the matter of what I take to be your optimism: you seem to think that someone like JNV misreads you because pseudonymity gives him license to be careless, and that, if only he were using his real name, with all the consequences that attend, he'd be a better, smarter, more responsible reader. To that I say, Glenn Reynolds, Clayton Cramer, Rush Limbaugh, John Hinderaker, etc. ad infinitum. He misreads you because that's how he reads. It has nothing to do with whether he's shielded from the consequences of his readings.
Revealing Juan Non-Volokh's identity could be unduly punitive for him, will be a massive hassle for you, and won't do anything to improve the level of discourse in blogdom or anywhere else.
Given tenure practices in law schools, it would be extraordinary if revealing his identity had any consequences. That being said, Ogged's point in the second paragraph is probably correct.
ANOTHER UPDATE: In view of the extraordinary conservative pity fest going on for Mr. Non-Volokh at the various right-wing blogs (you would think there is actually a right to blog anonymously enforceable against private parties), conjoined with the predictable smears and (guess what?) misreadings, it's worth re-emphasizing a few points.
First, there are occasions, as I said, where anonymity may be justified, for example, when someone fears political violence, or where someone would be defenseless against abuse of one kind or another. Someone who is a tenure-track academic in law, hooked into the Federalist Society network, as Mr. Non-Volokh is, is not at any risk. I have written about the tenure standards in law schools (they are low), and I know of no case in which someone was denied tenure for their right-wing political views. Indeed, the only cases I am aware of in which tenure-track academics were denied tenure because of their political views, those individuals were on the far left. If I had had any reason to think he'd be punished for his politics (as opposed, e.g., to the low level of his reading and argumentative skills), then I wouldn't have even joked about outing him. The "pity fest" for Mr. Non-Volokh going on at various right-wing sites is really just preposterous, and reflects the profound and widespread ignorance of the tenure and promotion practices of law schools.
The basic facts here are simple, as far as I can see: Mr. Non-Volokh misrepresents--on a law blog with a very large readership (that's the only reason I replied)--my views and my competence, and would like a free pass for having done so. (Oddly, the only folks who don't think he misrepresented what I said all turn out to be conservatives. Imagine that!) He deserves to have his real-world reputation impacted in proportion to his own stupidity and incompetence. (Readers may be the judge of the relevant proportions.) Apart from questions of desert, one also likes to know with whom one is dealing in academic life, and I would like to know if the person I'm talking to at a conference one day is, in fact, Mr. Non-Volokh. And then I can ask him, "What the heck was that all about?" and we can talk about it. But for the reasons given by various correspondents above, I see I can satisfy my interest without publicizing that information.
One of the curious discoveries I've made in the blogosphere is that if you call people on their ignorance, bad arguments, and mistakes (think Lawrence VanDyke, the shill for creationism I and others dealt with last year [see, e.g., here and here and here], or Stuart Buck), they object, "Oh, that's a personal attack." If the person is ignorant and mistaken, and there is evidence to that effect, then I suppose it is personal, but certainly not in any sense suggested by the connotations of the phrase "personal attack": it isn't about anyone's physical appearance, or sexual preferences, or taste in clothes, or family. It's about their public ideas and arguments, in some cases public ideas and arguments in professional journals. What I increasingly think frightens some of those on the right who populate the blogosphere--and which explains the viciousness and genuinely personal nature of their attacks on me--is that it is not my custom to give their nonsense the kid's glove treatment to which the generally right-wing public culture has accustomed them. As a young philosopher wrote to me long ago:
The thing that always astonishes me is that they [other bloggers] put on this air of pained affront if an academic gets short with them - 'I don't expect this tone from an educator' and all that jazz. Jesus, they should have been in a room with Jerry 'I just have one question; was your paper a joke?' Fodor, or Kim 'but there's no fucking evidence for that!' Sterelny. Or most of the economists I know. Where do so many people get this idea that academic discourse is conducted by people wondering if they could regretfully venture to take issue with distinguished colleagues who are respectfully suggesting an emendation?
Because most of these folks can't win on the merits of the arguments (in some cases, it's not even clear they can follow the arguments), they fall back on self-serving moaning about good manners and "name-calling" (I'll say it again: names have descriptive and referential content) and "personal attacks." This kind of childishness is one reason most of the blogosphere is so unreadable.
Of course, I'm Mr. Gentility by comparison to Pharyngula! (And I wish I were half as funny!!!)
UPDATE: Schopenhauer is on point.